A privileged college student wanders off into the wilderness, never to be heard from again. It sounds like “Into the Wild,” but this time, the boy in question is fictional. And that difference is highlighted in both the strengths and the weaknesses of The Other, the new novel by award-winning author David Guterson.
Neil Countryman, a high school English teacher, has come into unlikely fame through his friendship with John William Barry, aka “the hermit of the Hoh.” From his vantage point in middle age, he – at times ponderously – recounts his first meeting with John William at a track meet in high school in the 1970s, where both waged an epic battle to avoid last place.
Their friendship is cemented over an ill-advised fishing expedition in a wishing fountain, and camping trips that would have left Grizzly Adams shaking his head in despair. Much marijuana and few maps were involved, and it’s a miracle both boys made it to their freshman year in college.
"I remember sitting in dense woods, playing chess with John William on the type of miniature board air travelers used before the advent of laptops,” Neil recounts. “Hair in his eyes, he made his moves with an anticlimactic nudge, then scratched his mosquito bites, teeth set in an impatient overbite, while I contemplated. It’s hard to understand why we wanted to spend so many days in the back country with little food, no fire, no map, and no compass, but maybe it was partly for that interlude of chess, for the disparity between chess and where we found ourselves.”
Neil, of solid proletariat stock, is the first Countryman to pick up a college degree and seems pretty happy to trundle toward marriage, children, and middle-class comfort. John William, a scion of Seattle’s founders on both sides, finds himself unable to bear living in a world of duct-taped ideals and compromises. (By John William’s standards, Thoreau was a total sell-out.)
Neil “runs on unfocused emotion,” as his high-school track coach puts it, while John William “would rather die than not jump.”
But to jump, John William needs Neil’s help and his secrecy. His plan, the aftermath of his disappearance from the world and the possible reasons behind it, form the backbone of “The Other.” It’s not the swiftest-moving of novels, but Guterson’s fans will enjoy the ethical examinations and smooth writing.
The parallels between the two young men are almost as tidy as in “The Prince and the Pauper,” but the friendship and philosophical bickering still makes for enjoyable reading.
“The problem with living in a cave is that you risk turning into a guru, and then no one likes you anymore,” Neil tells John William.
“‘The problem with living in hamburger world is that you risk turning into an idiot,’ John William answered. ‘Didn’t you say you want to write books? You can’t do it with a cheeseburger in your hand.’
“I said, ‘I disagree. The only way to do it is with a cheeseburger in your hand.’ ”
The natural landscape of the Pacific Northwest has loomed large in Guterson’s novels since his breakthrough debut, “Snow Falling on Cedars.” But in “The Other,” the wilderness is much more than just scenery: it represents both the unspoiled ideal for John William, and the loaded gun propelling the plot forward.
The site he chooses is suitably ascetic: “The Hoh doesn’t even have the attractions of rural dilapidation. There’s bald destructiveness in the path it takes.... It looks, in sum, just short of appalling.”
For John William, everything is an ethical question – “I mean, how paralyzing is that?” asks his college girlfriend, Cindy Saperstein, who, by the way, is a terrific character. (My favorite line of John William’s would-be Juliet: “I mean I wasn’t even going to kill myself in metaphor, OK? And I should have told him....”) But Neil’s a rather complacent chap. His wife, Jamie, ultimately gets drawn into the plot, but Guterson doesn’t spend much time exploring the tension such secrecy would necessarily have had on their marriage.
As a narrator, Neil has a tendency to repeat the same thing six different ways. This can be an endearing trait in a beloved uncle, but it does tend to slow a book down.
At the heart of the novel is the philosophical question of whether it’s better to have the courage of your convictions, no matter how high the cost, or to make the concessions necessary to get by in the modern world.
Guterson teases out both sides of the debate, but allows readers come to their own conclusions. As for Neil, “When I think about my friend, I think about someone who followed through, and then I’m glad not to have followed through....” he says near the end of the novel. “I’m a hypocrite, of course, and I live with that, but I live.”
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.